It’s not uncommon for Michael Starrbury to write for 12 hours straight in his Brooklyn Park home, pausing occasionally to dig down into his snack drawer — or look up for inspiration.
There, on his office wall, alongside posters of “Fargo” and “Out of Sight,” leans a framed photo of a personal tweet from his mentor, Ava DuVernay: “You’ll be as amazing a director as you are a screenwriter.”
Starrbury has not quite gotten the green light to helm his own movie, but he did have a date to the 71st Annual Emmy Awards with his red-hot mentor. The two were nominated for co-writing the harrowing, and heartbreaking, final installment of Netflix’s “When They See Us,” which was up for 11 major awards Sunday, second only to HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” (See a list of winners here.)
“It’s lovely to share it with him,” said DuVernay, who followed up her success with “Selma” and “A Wrinkle in Time” by directing all four episodes of the miniseries dramatizing the plight of the Central Park Five.
But Starrbury seemed giddier about his oldest son getting the opportunity to hobnob with the “Stranger Things” cast at the after-party than striding up to the podium during the main event.
“I get more excited about the creative process than the business side of it,” said the 45-year-old Minnesotan while offering a tour of his impeccably clean suburban home, an uncorked bottle of prosecco on the kitchen counter. “At the end of the day, it’s not really about me.”
Starrbury has been in this situation before.
Six years ago, his screenplay for “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete,” a coming-of-age tale featuring Jennifer Hudson and Jeffrey Wright, was in the running for an Independent Spirit Award. While he didn’t win, the recognition alone should have catapulted him into the big leagues.
But few story lines behind the scenes stick to the script.
While he’s since had development deals with almost every major studio, he has yet to see any of his scripts get a theatrical release. The closest he’s come is punching up some of Will Smith’s dialogue for “Bright.”
He quit working on a script for the Tupac Shakur biopic “All Eyez on Me” when the producers wanted to go in a different direction. He helped launch Comedy Central’s animated series “Legends of Chamberlain Heights,” but grew frustrated by how that collaboration process sanitized his more biting tastes.
“I say no to a lot of things,” said Starrbury, settling in on his patio this month in a natty wardrobe that suggests he took care to make sure every piece of clothing flashed bright blue. “There are things that have come my way that I could have chased and put my name on. But I’m not a mainstream guy. I did pitch a superhero movie to Marvel, but my takes are too grounded. I like stories that are planted on Planet Earth with three-dimensional humans. I’m a lot less interested in a creature from outer space that needs to collect stones.”
Starrbury, a 1993 Osseo grad, also may be somewhat hampered by refusal to abandon Minnesota, where his two sons attend school and his wife, Tina Sims, works as an art director at Ingredient, the Minneapolis-based food marketing agency.
“I’ve actually never tried to convince him to move to L.A.,” said literary manager Julian Rosenberg, who has been representing Starrbury for nearly a decade. “His priorities put family first. I really respect that.”
But it’s impossible to ignore Starrbury’s skills, which he developed in the dinkiest of Dinkytown apartments, using published screenplays by Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee as his textbooks. By 2011, he had won the state’s IFP/McKnight Artist Fellowships for Screenwriters three times.
“I truly fell in love with screenwriting. I gave up friendships, gave up hanging out, being young,” said Starrbury, who can’t remember the last time he went three consecutive days without working on a script. “My work ethic hasn’t changed.”
DuVernay was well aware of that focus when she recruited him to join her as co-writer for the final episode of “When They See Us,” which deals almost exclusively with the 14 years that Central Park Five’s Korey Wise spent in incarceration.
After DuVernay’s initial phone call, Starrbury had a rough draft done in a week.
The two then traded ideas back and forth, by text and in person, with DuVernay relying on her partner to inject a little humor and whimsy into the most hopeless of scenarios. For example, it was Starrbury’s idea to have Wise, played by Jharrel Jerome, bond with a Chia Pet during his time in solitary confinement.
“When one of the partners is the creator and director, you’ll often come across someone who tries to put too much of themselves into it instead of being part of the original vision and lifting that up,” said DuVernay, who also is working with Starrbury on an HBO film about the 1973 French-American fashion show dubbed the Battle of Versailles. “But Michael was always respectful of my vision. He never tried to assert himself.”
Not that Starrbury didn’t push back while the two of them exchanged notes.
“You can’t surround yourself with yes men,” said DuVernay, who is no stranger to splitting from projects due to creative differences. She recently left a highly anticipated Prince documentary after spending two years developing it. “If you’re not going to tell me when it sucks, you’re useless to me. I’m not interested in people telling me I’m great. I’m interested in people helping me be great.”
It’s no wonder that DuVernay’s words of encouragement hang in Starrbury’s office. They certainly will come in handy when he finally gets his chance behind the camera. That debut most likely will be for “Watch Roger Do His Thing,” a script of his that’s been bouncing around the industry for years.
“My strength will be working with the actors,” Starrbury said, when asked about his approach to directing. “I’m not a show-offy type. I want the camera to be in the right spot so actors can make me look good. Let the performances stand out.”
Even if those plans fall through, Starrbury will be just fine. As long as his kid got to meet Eleven from “Stranger Things” on Sunday night.
“I’m not chasing Hollywood fame,” he said. “It wasn’t like after ‘Mister & Pete’ they said, ‘Do you want to do the next big thing?’ The irony is that even if they had, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
When They See Us
When and where: Now streaming on Netflix.